A few years ago, I attended a men’s conference on discipleship. There were only two full-audience speeches; the rest of the conference consisted of a glut of small seminars. So many seminars that the catalogue of classes looked like the plastic menu at a Greek restaurant.
Amazing to me, not one breakout seminar focused on prayer ( or Scripture or worship) as though attendees could become award winning discipleship-chefs without serving up a spiritual life.
The conference planners worsened their spiritual malnutrition by offering an all-you-can-eat dessert-buffet on emotional well-being: Shunning Shame, Self-Esteem with Confidence, and The Art of Self-talk.
The conference was advertised as a Christian plan for growing spiritual infants into spiritual adults, moving them from milk to solid food. But it felt more like a primer on pop-psychology at a summer camp for middle school dropouts. All the topics are exhaustively covered in the TV shows, Young Sheldon and The Bing Bang Theory.
The keynote title was, Rewriting Your Story. The speaker shared how his past pornography addiction had led him to a banquet of self-incrimination. Then, a month earlier, he had succumbed to pornography again, but this time he felt no guilt or shame. Zero. And that freedom felt wonderful. He said, “True rest begins where self-judgement ends,” and concluded:
We all have PTSD and shame. Our single greatest need is self-compassion.
Where Would You Take Your Broken Bike?
A friend of mine once refused to take his broken bicycle to a particular bike shop because its owner is an atheist. He didn’t doubt the owner’s mechanical competence. He simply didn’t want to take his bike to someone who doesn’t believe in God.
I disagreed with my friend. I had recommended this atheist bike mechanic because my friend needed his gear shifters adjusted, and the mechanic eats, sleeps, and dreams bicycles. He knows his stuff. If my friend’s heart needed a valve replacement, I wouldn’t have suggested the bike guy, I’d have suggested a surgeon. Different problems require different skillsets.
I will take clogged drains to plumbers and my retirement accounts to investment counselors, whether they are atheists or not, because the required skill is technical not spiritual.
But I will never take my broken soul to an atheist guide, precisely because the brokenness of my soul needs spiritual help not one more secular perspective (which I get from the media for free).
And yet so many believers take the deepest questions of the soul to counselors whose training-heritage rejects God. Freud, the father of modern psychology, longingly coveted the pastor’s role in counseling, but rejected God, so his original name for therapists was, “Secular Pastor.”
The keynote speaker would have loved Freud who counseled the rejection of guilt and shame.
We Are What We Eat
The last thirty years have seen an epidemic of narcissism. Social scientists tie it to, a) the breakdown of community, b) the rise of individualism, and c) modern society’s infatuation with fame, wealth, and celebrities. But I think that modern therapy itself is the primary culprit.
It’s as though the doctors of the world began to prescribe Wonder Bread and Snickers bars to treat indigestion. And then they wonder at the rise of obesity and diabetes.
Therapists lament the widespread outbreak of narcissism, and yet it is precisely their prescriptions that nourish narcissism, with prescriptions of self-esteem, self-love, self-compassion, and self-pity. And then they wonder why we are so self-absorbed.
When doctors advise Snickers and therapists emphasize self-pity, the cure is worse than the disease. And we’ve all been infected by this modern-day, godless cure. We’re turning into spiritually diabetic narcissists.
The last time I ignored my wife or snapped at her, I wasn’t short of self-pity, I was overflowing with it. Why can’t people just understand how hard my life is! I was full of self and I was short of self-lessness: a broken spirit, meekness, and love of others.
The keynote speaker at the discipleship conference simply mirrored the worldly diet we devour every day in reality TV, Facebook posts, and therapist couches: guilt is bad and shame is worse.
It’s all about me.
Wow Sam! Not pulling any punches today! That was a very interesting read. I was raised in “the church”, but found more compassion and less judgement in the world of counselling when I trained to be one. Well, at least for a while, and to an extent. It was always clear to me that God and faith are actively discouraged in the world of therapy. And it is clear to me now, that in many places within the church the world of therapy is equally discouraged. I think to the detriment of both. I have experienced seasons of the darkest depression throughout my life and without the understanding of my biological, psychological and spiritual self, gained from learning from both camps, I would have had a much harder time of it. I will always come down firmly on the side of God as the ultimate and best healer, however, my issue is with Christians who have never learned how to move from trite, shallow, scriptural band aids to the deep and compassionate healing and awareness of how to love and help truly and deeply wounded or broken people, and often end up doing way more harm. Similarly therapists who cannot embrace and encourage someone’s relationship with God as a source of healing really shouldn’t be in the profession. Like being unafraid of using an atheist bicycle mechanic, we shouldn’t shun atheist psychological help, but we should be able to combine the best of both worlds for the best outcome and give the glory to God for the advances and learning of science.
Would that more Christians were this discerning! I believe psychology has a place in our lives, but only in concert with biblically based views of ourselves and our Creator. I am amazed at the secular infatuation with egocentric celebrities, singers and rappers. Not to mention the cycloptic preachers who think their church’s success depends on “get them to come to church” by offering secualr entertainment.
I don’t know if I would call modern therapy the primary culprit, but I would definitely add it to your list as a fourth cause. Otherwise, I think this is point, set, match. The next time someone asks me why I left the profession, I’ll simply send them this link!
Michael Knower, MD
“No man can be pain-free, if he is experiencing a crisis of faith. No man can enjoy communion with his God if, he is experiencing uncontrolled vomiting.” Robert Twycross
During my thirty-two years as a hospice physician dealing with suffering, terminally ill patients and their families, being aware of spiritual, social, and psychological factors, along with the physical factors, was part and parcel of what I did. I agree with Andrea. We need to be aware of all four. As a church elder for the past five years–three of those overlapping with my hospice career–I have been focused primarily on spiritual issues, although as my wife points out I have not forgotten everything I know about medicine.
The call to be disciples is scattered throughout the Gospels. We find the call to make disciples in Matthew 28:18-20. Looking for guidance on discipleship or disciplemaking in Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine is highly unlikely to be helpful. Knowing what lies outside ones scope of practice is one of the essential bits of clinical wisdom. If we desire to be about discipleship, Jesus is our primary source. The guys He discipled (e.g. Peter, John, Matthew), the guys they discipled (e.g. Mark, James), and the guys who hung out with them (e.g. Paul, Luke) are reliable secondary sources. As I look for currently accessible tertiary sources on discipleship, I ask, “Is this person a disciple of Jesus Christ? How can I tell? (cf. Matthew 7:20) Is this person actively engaged in discipling others to Jesus?” If the answers are “no, no, and no,” teaching on discipleship is outside this person’s scope of practice.
I adamantly agree with you on selecting a bicycle mechanic, investment advisor, or accountant. You want someone with the requisite skills for the task at hand. If I need an aortic valve replacement, not just any surgeon will do. There is one cardiothoracic surgeon (for an open procedure) and a couple interventional cardiologists (for a trans-arterial valve replacement) I would trust. I would trust them because I have cared for their previous patients one, two, or five years out from their procedures (cf. Matthew 7:20).
The issue you raise is that, unfortunately, not all extant psychologists and counselors know the limits of their scope of practice. They may not understand the spiritual factors in play, or they may presume to lump spiritual and psychological factors together. With the advent of pop psych and electronic self-publication and self-promotion, we must also contend with “the rise and triumph of the modern self.” [Apologies to Carl Trueman] We have too easily bought into the proposition that it is all about me, and that Jesus is useful if and when He makes me feel better about myself. Jesus never tells us the path of discipleship will always be easy.
FYI, years ago there was a physician who used to prescribe Hostess Twinkies to his prenatal patients for sugar loading during the forty-eight hours prior to a glucose tolerance test. With that exception, he almost always recommended the DASH diet.
Hi Sam, I agree with Dr. Michael Knower, above. We need to both BE disciples and participate in MAKING disciples.
Spiritual leadership is meant to be a part of every Godly person. (that is, one who is Saved by God’s Grace and imbued with His Holy Spirit).
I’m sorry to hear that there are Seminars, (such as the one you described in your article) available to draw the believer to a path which will surely lead nowhere good.
Discernment is required in ALL aspects of our lives, particularly when it comes to “education”.
A complicated topic. As a Christian psychologist and counsellor, I came to the conclusion that many modern therapies and belief systems have already been identified for us in the scriptures. If God is who we believe him to be, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he is way ahead of us when it comes to understanding human nature. So the insights about humans that we find in scripture can be expected to be at the core of successful therapies, including both secular and spiritual ones. In this scenario, the secular theories that have a biblical forebear can be expected to be somewhat successful, but not fully so in that they will omit the full spiritual dimension.
Some examples of psychological “insights” that follow major spiritual forebears are:
— the unconscious. “The heart is wicked above all things, who can know it”. Borrowed into therapy by Freud.
— the motivation towards life, which Freud misnamed as the sex drive.
— the generalised ability to know right and wrong, which is known in therapy as a conscience.
— the worth of a human. Throughout scripture. Gods plan to build and perfect humans. Underlies psychological notions of identity and self-worth.
— the “if this, then that” dynamic. Illustrated in scripture as the covenant, incorporated in psychology as the basis of behaviourism.
So I see the world as an inextricable mixture/combination/symbiosis of what the modern world has divided into spiritual and psychological camps, but which God sees as what we call a Gestalt. And God inhabits and acts in both realms (and the physical and relational realms as well). And whatever and however God chooses to work is still God’s work, no matter what pidgeon hole we tend to put it in.
So, yes, the conference you report seems to have been mislabelled. But please don’t dismiss what it did cover because of what it did not cover.
Thanks for this article and the earlier comments that help me to think through discipleship. I have enjoyed Dr. Larry Crabb for many years in learning how to throw out the dirty bath water and not the baby, the common grace God has given each one of us made in His image. Theology informs psychology not the other way around as Crabb points out in his work. I especially like his last book “Waiting for Heaven: Freedom from the Incurable Addiction to Self”. Dr Larry Crabb’s legacy lives on through the ministry “largerstory.com”.
In Christ-centered addiction recovery, shame is a major stumbling block. It is essentially the flip side of pride, as it puts all the focus on ourselves: “I failed again. I’m not good enough. I’m not worthy of getting free of this addiction.” To move forward, you have to break the sin-confess-sin cycle and seek forgiveness to get free of shame. The Spirit’s conviction leads to the sort of godly sorrow that leads to true repentance, but I do not think we are meant to live for very long — if at all — in shame and self-loathing. (Romans 8:1 comes to mind.) Our focus simply must be on Christ and not on ourselves and our problems if we’re ever to move forward.
I think it is much the same in the life of every disciple. We cling to his life as the only thing capable of saving us from ourselves. We turn the focus from our sin and give him our full attention.